COMMUNITY: Top Ten Episodes

Community is dead. Long live Community.

Despite hopes and prophecies to the contrary, NBC finally dropped the hammer on beloved cult comedy Community yesterday. While it hurts that we won’t get that fabled #SixSeasonsAndAMovie (maybe “Five Seasons and a Netflix Pickup?” “Five Seasons and a Web Series Shot in Dan Harmon’s Basement?”), the fact that the series even made it this far is a miracle in and of itself.

Somehow, each year it was able to take advantage of the network’s garbage fire of a lineup; along with equally low-rated Parks and Recreation, Community skirted by because it was 1) Deeply loved by a hardcore audience of fans, 2) Critically respected, and 3) Doing imperceptibly better than anything else NBC tried to program. Normally those first two wouldn’t be enough to keep it around, but whenever NBC president Bob Greenblatt tried to plug in “broader” freshman comedies, they crashed and burned. Thus, Community survived.

And not only did it survive creator/genius Dan Harmon’s acrimonious exit after Season 3 (in which he famously feuded with star Chevy Chase and was generally a jerk to everyone), it even endured his absence (the “gas leak year” of Season 4, which — try as interim showrunners David Guarascio & Moses Port did, only ever felt like a hollow reflection of the show), leading to what would be Community’s final season with Harmon back at the helm. Chase was gone, and fan favorite (and heart of the show) Donald Glover would leave partly through, but Harmon and his lieutenant Chris McKenna managed to re-center the series and produce a number of episodes that you could hold up with the hits of Seasons 2 or 3.

Community’s strength, besides being consistently funny, was how it loved to take big swings. The show could be anything from week to week: a Goodfellas homage, a Western, an episode animated in clay or like G.I. Joe, a musical, a zombie film, or even a serious character study like Season 2 standout “Mixology Certification.” It was a tendency that allowed detractors to claim the series was built on gimmicks, which was unfair, because it was the strength of the characters that made each new theme work. Over the course of five seasons, this group of weirdos, who began as a Spanish 101 study group — smug lawyer Jeff (Joel McHale), spacey anarchist Britta (Gillian Jacobs), pop culture savant Abed (Danny Pudi), sensitive football player Troy (Donald Glover), perfectionist princess Annie (Alison Brie), religious-but-tough mom Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), and cranky codger Pierce (Chevy Chase) — drew closer together and became a family, and the traditional “community college” stories evolved into something much more complex and altogether rewarding.

Greendale, toilet bowl of a school that it was, was heavily populated with a bevy of side characters who were expertly deployed week to week, beginning with the hapless Dean Pelton (Jim Rash), whose relentless punnery and unrequited crush on Jeff were a never-ending source of jokes, and who gradually became more central to the narrative as the series went on. The running gags were plentiful: “Troy and Abed in the morning;” Magnitude’s “Pop Pop!”; the concept of “Britta-ing” something; Inspector Spacetime and Kickpuncher; the Dreamatorium; and dozens of others, too many to name and deserving of discovery.

It was pretty darn hard to narrow Community’s 98 episodes down to ten, and I recognize that your favorite might not be on my list. This is not the ten “best episodes,” or even the ten “most representative episodes.” It’s simply my ten most favorite, which will tell you something about me, and hopefully still tell you something about how brilliant Community was. Rest in peace, you misunderstood diamond in the rough.

In reverse order…

(Alert: not all the YouTube clips will work on mobile mode, and they may disappear one day so you should really just seek it out on Hulu or on DVD.)

10. “Paradigms of Human Memory,” Season 2, Episode 21
Also Known As: “The Clip Show”
Writer: Chris McKenna; Director: Tristram Shapeero

Abed, stop being meta! Why do you always have to take whatever happens to us and shove it up its own ass?

–Jeff

No series did  “meta” — that which refers to itself — like Community, and few episodes did it better than this one, which takes the standard “clip show” (done by sitcoms who need to save money by cobbling together clips of other episodes), and turns it on its ear by giving us “flashbacks” to events we never saw in the series. It was an expensive, complicated episode to shoot, but it worked like gangbusters: while working on their final diorama, the group reflects on the past year, which included not just new moments within previous episodes, but new, left-field setups like an old ghost town, a psych ward, white water rafting, and a cavalcade of ridiculous Dean entrances.

9. “Basic Lupine Urology,” Season 3, Episode 17
Also Known As: “The Law & Order Episode”
Writer: Megan Ganz; Director: Rob Shrab

Greendale Community College is represented by two separate yet equally important types of people: the goofballs who run around stirring up trouble, and the eggheads that make a big deal out of it. These are their stories.

When the group’s biology project — a yam — is found “murdered,” ensuring a failing grade that straight-arrow Annie just can’t abide, they take it upon themselves to investigate in a hilarious send-up of the indomitable NBC franchise. Every detail is down solid, from the camerawork, soundtrack, and hard-boiled dialogue, to the smaller gags like how no one ever seems to stop whatever they’re doing when the police arrive to interview them. Michael K. “Omar from The Wire” Williams, making one of several appearances in Season 3 as the biology professor, is a fun addition (like later guests Malcolm MacDowell, Vince Gilligan, Walton Goggins, and loads more would be.)

8. “Geothermal Escapism,” Season 5, Episode 5
Also Known As: “Hot Lava, or The One Where Troy Leaves”
Writer: Tim Saccardo; Director: Joe Russo

Don’t regress to primal behavior just because it’s allowed. We’re human beings, not the editors of Teen Vogue.

–Britta

An incredibly fun episode with a bittersweet punch, Donald Glover’s final episode centers on a campus-wide game of “Hot Lava,” instigated by Abed, which — as always happens on Community — quickly devolves into chaos and anarchy. It could easily be the series’s best “apocalyptic” episode since “Modern Warfare,” strikingly directed by frequent helmer Joe Russo, and landing the action sequences and emotional beats with equal verve. Troy and Abed’s friendship was long a key centerpiece of the show, providing many of its funniest and sweetest moments, and Glover’s decision to leave Community to pursue his music career was a real blow, but you can’t ask for a better send-off than this. (My full recap here.)

7. “Digital Estate Planning,” Season 3, Episode 20
Also Known As: “The Video Game Episode”
Writer: Matt Warburton; Director: Adam Davidson

Man, why can’t my mom be here? She always said my video game knowledge would come in handy. I never believed her.

–Troy

Coming at the end of Season 3, when the Harmon-Chase feud was at its peak (the latter reportedly walked off set while filming an emotional beat that would have capped off this episode), “Digital Estate Planning” nevertheless was determined to dimensionalize Chase’s character, now as an embittered son who has had to fight for respect his entire life. The gang pitches in to help Pierce beat a surprisingly complex (if 8-bit) video game designed by his father, in order to claim his inheritance; nearly the entire episode takes place inside the world of the game. Giancarlo Esposito guest-stars as Pierce’s half-brother and in-game nemesis, confounding the group with power-ups and magic spells. Abed, meanwhile, falls in love as only Abed can.

6. “Cooperative Calligraphy,” Season 2, Episode 8
Also Known As: “The Bottle Episode”
Writer: Megan Ganz; Director: Joe Russo

I hate bottle episodes. They’re wall to wall facial expressions and emotional nuance. I might as well sit in a corner with a bucket on my head.

–Abed

“Bottle episodes,” like clip shows, are an easy way for shows to save money: the story must take place in one room, which usually means the characters must be trapped in a cabin, or bathroom, or some such. Community, in its way, embraces the concept, as the race to solve the mystery of Annie’s missing pen takes a backseat to a series of cleverly-deployed reveals about the characters and the secrets they’ve been keeping from each other. And even with so little action, it rockets along at an exhilarating pace, the one-liners flying as betrayals stack atop each other, and the room gets quite literally torn apart. It’s one of a few legitimately perfect episodes in the series’s run, and early evidence that it didn’t need pop culture gimmickry to be successful.

5. “Pillows and Blankets,” Season 3, Episode 14
Also Known As: “The Civil War Episode”
Writer: Andy Bobrow; Director: Tristram Shapeero

Unfortunately for Britta and millions of photographers like her, just because it’s in black and white doesn’t mean it’s good.

–Narrator

With Abed and Troy hitting a rare speedbump in their friendship (over whether to make a record-breaking pillow or blanket fort, no less), the episode uses a “Ken Burns-style” structure to tell the story of how Greendale was nearly consumed by Civil War. Keith David narrates the dramatic tale, complete with interviews, “archive photographs,” helpful campus maps with arrows plotting troop movements, and dramatic readings of emails and text messages. Fans of Burns or of historical documentaries in general will be grinning from start to finish, and the moment at the end when Jeff finally sacrifices looking “cool” to repair the relationship between the friends, who have become his friends, is surprisingly poignant given all the silliness that came before.

4. “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” Season 2, Episode 14
Also Known As: “The First One With Dungeons and Dragons”
Writer: Andrew Guest; Director: Joe Russo

And so it was that the group began to describe themselves walking. And as they described themselves walking, so did Abed confirm they had walked.

It would have been so easy to make the world of D&D a target, but that’s not the kind of show Community is. Instead, we got a loving send-up of the entire fantasy genre, from the Lord of the Rings-apeing credits and score, to the silly names and weaponry, to the nimble camerawork as the study group throws themselves headfirst into the game. Even better, it locates the characters’ hearts, as the entire enterprise is designed to lift the spirits of “Fat Neil,” a lifelong gamer who Jeff had been thoughtlessly bullying. Even when Pierce, enraged about being left out, crashes the game and plays up his villain role (once again, subtext emerging as text), the script doesn’t reduce itself to cheap shots. In Season 5, the series would go back to this well a second time and struggle to clear the high bar it set here.

3. “Modern Warfare,” Season 1, Episode 23
Also Known As: “PAINTBALL”
Writer: Emily Cutler; Director: Justin Lin

Come with me if you don’t want paint on your clothes.

–Abed

This wasn’t the first “homage” episode, but it was the one that truly broke through into the public consciousness, signaling that Community had finally arrived and was worth your attention. A note-perfect action extravaganza (propulsively directed by Justin Lin from the Fast franchise) and worth every dollar Harmon spent on it, “Modern Warfare” is bursting at the seams with energy. After a nap in his car, Jeff wakes up to find Greendale an apocalyptic wasteland, and the students broken up into different warring factions all competing for a mysterious prize. References to Die Hard, Terminator, The Matrix, John Woo films, and — well, really the entire action genre — abound, and Jeff and Britta hook up for the first time. It’s a total blast, and the go-to starting point for anyone interested in checking out the show.

2. “Remedial Chaos Theory,” Season 3, Episode 4
Also Known As: “The Best One, or The One With the Timelines”
Writer: Chris McKenna; Director: Jeff Melman

Jeff: Starting on my left with one: your number comes up, you go.

Abed: Just so you know Jeff, you are now creating six different timelines.

Jeff: Of course I am, Abed.

Representing Community’s only Emmy nomination (for writing, a fact which is criminal in and of itself but is neither here nor there) “Remedial Chaos Theory” is the show’s high water mark and gold standard, a shockingly complicated episode that layers over a half-dozen timelines of a single event in just 23 minutes, and not a single beat falls flat. Unlike “Modern Warfare” or many other series highlights, it requires foreknowledge of these characters, but that’s the episode’s strength: seeing how they react in nearly identical circumstances, depending on which one of them loses the dice roll and has to go get pizza. It’s a confident, almost muscular piece of writing, and a masterpiece of editing — I’ve never seen anything quite like it, nor do I ever expect to. It was the single-best half hour of television in 2011.

1. “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design,” Season 2, Episode 9
Also Known As: “My Favorite, or The One With Night School”
Writer: Chris McKenna; Director: Adam Davidson

Do you understand what a conspiracy is? When you conspire with everyone you come across, you’re not really conspiring with anyone. You’re just doing random crap.

–Annie

A blisteringly funny tour-de-force that sends up paranoid thrillers, “Conspiracy Theories” is my all-time favorite episode for one reason: “Professor Professerson.” When the Dean thinks he has caught Jeff earning credits for a class that doesn’t exist, “Professerson” magically appears, but — as you might expect — he is more than he seems, and the conspiracy goes…all the way to the top. That alone would be enough, but we also get the original appearance of Troy and Abed’s campus-wide blanket fort (the location of a “thrilling” chase sequence), and a dizzying climax with multiple turnabouts where lessons are taught but go completely unlearned. It also is the best representative episode of the Jeff/Annie relationship, an aspect of the show that would only become more distracting with time. But “Conspiracy Theories” is everything I loved about Community: ambitious, quick-witted, and more than a little bit weird.

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